Chicago Blackhawks need youth to move in right direction

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Blackhawks' Matthew Highmore, left, crashed against Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner (90) as Shea Theodore (27) skates in during the second period in Game 5 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, in Edmonton, Alberta. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

    Chicago Blackhawks' Matthew Highmore, left, crashed against Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner (90) as Shea Theodore (27) skates in during the second period in Game 5 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, in Edmonton, Alberta. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

 
 
Updated 8/24/2020 6:26 AM

Opportunity will be knocking in a big way when the Blackhawks begin training for the 2021-22 season. The question is, which young players will prove themselves worthy?

Worthy of a roster spot. Worthy of more ice time. Worthy of more responsibility.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Because with the salary cap remaining flat at $81.5 million, the Hawks desperately need their inexpensive talent to take another step. Or two. Or three.

"Oh, I think there's going to be a lot of opportunity," coach Jeremy Colliton said Friday. "We want to get better, so part of how we're going to do that is giving opportunity to young players."

Colliton's greatest hope is that a number of them ramp up every aspect of their game. He wants them to be more relentless, get in on the forecheck with authority and be able to hold opponents down for multiple shifts. Do all of that and more games will turn in the Hawks' favor.

"We need more," Colliton said. "We saw that in the playoffs. Those are the teams that are having success."

Among the forwards, it's reasonable to expect a complete season out of Kirby Dach and continued growth from Dylan Strome (assuming GM Stan Bowman re-signs the restricted free agent). The two centers are a huge key to giving the Hawks a well-balanced roster.

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If the 6-foot-4, 197-pound Dach can put on 10-15 pounds, he'll really be a force in front of the net and in the corners. There's little doubt that Colliton will give Dach a role on the penalty kill, meaning his average time on ice could be 18 minutes or more. In his second year, it's not unreasonable to expect a 20-goal, 30-assist season.

Strome's future is a bit cloudy, but if he returns the Hawks should leave him at center. He absolutely needs to be a difference maker on most nights in what will be his third full season.

After that, it will be interesting to see:

• How the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Pius Suter fits in. The 24-year-old was named MVP of the Swiss-A league after scoring 30 goals in just 50 games. If he follows in Dominik Kubalik's footsteps, watch out.

• If Alex Nylander can become a consistent player all over the ice. Nylander has all the skills but continues to struggle with ice awareness and compete level.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

• Who emerges among John Quenneville, Brandon Hagel, Dylan Sikura and Matthew Highmore to become trusted bottom-six forces. Heck, if the first three show enough they may even be given time on the top two lines.

• If another forward or two surprises. They include Philipp Kurashev, Mackenzie Entwistle, Matej Chalupa and the recently signed Cameron Morrison.

• How Adam Boqvist looks in his first full season. The 20-year-old defenseman showed plenty of flashes in 41 games, but he struggled in the playoffs. No shame in that. He was asked to play an awfully big role vs. the Oilers and Golden Knights, one he wasn't quite ready for.

• If D-man Ian Mitchell contributes right away. Mitchell, drafted in the second round in 2017, looked ready in camp last year but chose to return to the University of Denver for his junior year. "Very excited about him," Colliton said. "Great skater, had an excellent college career, and we expect him to challenge for a spot."

• If Lucas Carlsson, Nicolas Beaudin and/or Dennis Gilbert are ready for prime time. All three impressed in their own way this season and can help in different ways.

For everyone listed above, it would bode well to listen to what Colliton had to say about Highmore, a selfless, relentless bulldog who scored 3 goals in nine playoff games.

"He goes out there, he does it 100 miles an hour," Colliton said. "He doesn't cheat, he wins 50-50s, he advances the puck, he gets it in, he goes to the net.

"That (fourth) line scored 3 or 4 goals at least in the (postseason) playing against top-line competition. It's just because he's willing to do the right thing. ... He doesn't extend his shift, he doesn't hang around in the offensive zone hoping to get a goal or get a second assist or a get a plus (rating).

"If he started in D-zone, he gets it out of D-zone, gets it in. And 35 seconds in the alarm bells are going off in his head that he's got to get off so that Patrick Kane can step off in a good spot, maybe playing against tired guys. ...

"We need more of that, we need it up and down the lineup."

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